Should Taxpayer Dollars Go to Religious Schools?

By Brenda Flanagan

Should $10.6 million of your tax dollars pay for new buildings at Beth Medrash Govoha, a college-level yeshiva in Lakewood where 6,800 male-only rabbinical students study Talmud? How about $645,000 to upgrade IT systems at Princeton Theological Seminary where all-Christian students train to serve Jesus Christ?

“Taxpayers’ dollars can’t go to further religious training, can’t go to churches, can’t go to churches, can’t go to places of worship, can’t go to ministries,” said Ed Barocas.

Barocas is with New Jersey’s ACLU, which challenged both grants among 176 made three years ago by New Jersey’s Department of Higher Education. The ACLU argued New Jersey’s constitution bars grants to the yeshiva and the seminary.

“What they did was train ministers and engage in religious — sectarian religious training. That’s simply not allowed by our constitution,” Barocas said.

The appellate court denied the grants because the schools’ “…facilities funded by the department’s grants indisputably will be used substantially if not exclusively for religious instruction.” The seminary had no comment but the yeshiva’s president strongly disagrees with the ACLU.

“We are eligible for this and there’s really nothing in the constitution that bars this,” said Rabbi Aaron Kotler.

Kotler heads Beth Madras Govoha. He says the school’s a powerful economic engine for the area and that these grants were intended to stimulate development. He also believes they’re not at odds with New Jersey’s constitution.

“We’re not a ministry, we’re an educational institution. Our educational institution has religious roots, religious foundation, has religious aims, but so does Seton Hall. So does so many other schools,” he said.

Here’s the fine legal point — New Jersey’s constitution bans giving state tax money to a ministry. The state Attorney General argued that only applies to churches but not religious schools and colleges. The appellate court left that decision up to the Supremes.

“There is nothing that is more of a ministry than training ministry students, having ministers train ministry students, to become ministers whether it’s rabbis, priests or reverends. That’s what was happening at these two institutions,” Barocas said.

“To discriminate against one sector of schools and award funds to everyone else is maybe a form of reverse discrimination,” Kotler said.

The rabbi suggested their cause would prevail in an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. However, neither the seminary nor the yeshiva were actual litigants in this case. The Attorney General’s office refused to comment.

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